Loon – the Internet-from-balloons provider that sprung from Google's R&D labs – announced a new partnership with AT&T. The companies' agreement essentially paves the way for Loon to deploy its balloons more quickly for AT&T or other operators around the world.
"Under the partnership, we have successfully integrated the Loon system with AT&T's network. This is a big deal because this network integration will extend to AT&T's partners around the world, meaning Loon will be able to provide service to a third-party mobile operator, assuming they have a standard international roaming relationship with AT&T," explained Alastair Westgarth, CEO of Loon, in a recent post. "While coordination with a local operator will be crucial, Loon's ability to leverage the AT&T network vastly expands the number of operators around the world that Loon can work with without having to complete time-intensive network integration for each one. In a disaster scenario, this will save valuable time and enable Loon to simultaneously serve several, if not all, the mobile operators in a market."
However, the agreement doesn't necessarily mean AT&T plans to purchase Loon's services. It will only make it easier for AT&T or any of AT&T's international roaming partners to purchase Loon's services.
An AT&T executive said as much in Westgarth's post. "At AT&T, delivering reliable connections is central to our mission," noted J.R. Wilson, AT&T's VP of tower strategy and roaming. "So in situations when disaster strikes – and our customers need connection more than ever – rapidly restoring communications is critical. We're pleased to work with Loon to make this an ongoing reality for customers around the world."
That said, there's certainly a chance that AT&T may turn to Loon in cases of disaster. For example, AT&T already uses drones, blimps and trucks to quickly deploy cellular coverage. And, as Westgarth happily points out in his post, Loon and AT&T already tested Loon's balloons in 2017 in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
The developments help highlight the niche that Loon is now targeting as an independent company following its separation from Google roughly two years ago: "We've moved away from thinking primarily about disaster response; We now primarily think about disaster preparedness," Westgarth wrote. "If we can prepare the necessary elements that go into a Loon deployment in advance, we'll be able to measure our ability to respond to a disaster not in weeks, but in days or hours."
Loon has commercial agreements with Telkom Kenya, Internet Para Todos, SoftBank's HAPSMobile, and satellite manufacturer Telesat. Loon also received a $125 million investment from SoftBank's HAPSMobile.
The company added that it is in negotiations with other mobile network operators, and hopes to share more news on that front soon.
Loon isn't the only company hoping to provide innovative Internet connection options. Elefante Group, Altaeros, SoftBank and SpaceX are among those looking at various airborne or space-based platforms that could provide additional coverage in emergencies or in rural areas.